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Gregg Berhalter out as U.S. men's soccer coach

For the better part of a decade, the U.S. men's national team have insisted things can only go up from here. The talking point started as a demand to improve after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the program eventually lived up to the billing, ushering in a talented group of new players that made the knockout rounds of the 2022 World Cup. That trip to Qatar was supposed to freshen the call to action of an upward trajectory, teasing that it was just the start of something special. A year and a half since, though, the promise of progress remains glaringly unfulfilled.

And so, the U.S. Soccer Federation's decision to fire coach Gregg Berhalter on Wednesday feels justified in the wake of the USMNT's group stage exit from the Copa America. The tournament did not go according to plan at all for the U.S., who hoped a berth at this expanded edition of the South American championship would serve as a proving ground for their aspirations and eyed a deep run after being placed in a favorable group. Instead, the USMNT were unable to string together a single performance that would convince onlookers that this was a team well and truly on the rise, losing twice in three games including an ill-fated matchup against underdogs Panama.

The blame does not rest on Berhalter's shoulders alone, but the last 10 months of work essentially erased the undeniable strides the team made during his first three years in the job. The head coach's second stint in charge, which began last September after his initial contract expired at the end of 2022, demonstrated the stark difference between starting from scratch and reaching the next level. There was little Berhalter could do to take his team to the next gear and long before they failed at the Copa America, the cracks began to show.

First came a 2-1 loss to Trindad and Tobago in the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinals last November. The deficit was not costly enough to their aggregate score but Sergino Dest's reckless red card derailed the USMNT's performance, which was unspectacular despite being the heavy favorites in that match. Then came a 3-1 win in extra time over Jamaica in the semifinals in March, when the U.S. conceded in the first minute and needed an own goal in the final minute to force extra time and win the game. Just a month ago, a 2-0 deficit against Colombia just 20 minutes into a friendly turned into a 5-1 loss by the final whistle. The loss to Panama was a death knell rather than the first sign of trouble, and it is difficult to expunge that string of performances from Berhalter's record.

Despite having the benefit of familiarity with a player pool that he has worked with since 2019, Berhalter seemed unable to tactically elevate his group to become greater than the sum of their parts. They seemed instead to regress in recent months, failing on occasions in which they were the favorites and crumbling under the pressure against top-ranked opponents. It is hard to credit Berhalter with any major accomplishments -- as much optimism has followed the group of players he coached, this team merely met expectations. They never found a way to go one step further, as Berhalter's paltry record against top 20 teams will demonstrate -- he has just five wins against teams in that category, four of which came against Mexico and the fifth came against Iran. Overperforming expectations is a difficult task with an imperfect player pool and considering the things outside of Berhalter's control, such as the players' club situations. Rising above those challenges, though, is ultimately the job of the USMNT coach, especially one who aimed " to do something that no U.S. team has done before" at the 2026 World Cup on home soil.

Berhalter's poor showings, though, mean blame also falls to the U.S. Soccer higher-ups who re-hired him last summer. Despite Berhalter's work during his first spell in charge, his return to the national team was not universally praised -- in fact, many responded to the news by admitting he had work to do to prove he deserved to resume the role. After the doomed Copa America experience, it feels like U.S. Soccer wasted two years, first waiting to re-hire Berhalter and then to see him demonstrate that he was not up for the job. The failed Berhalter experiment of the last year ultimately forces questions of the recruitment process, too.

It was the first big coaching hire from new U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, who joined the federation last April and reportedly deferred to the players after they publicly advocated for Berhalter's return. It remains unclear how many high-caliber coaches were in the running, though new Canada manager Jesse Marsch said he "wasn't treated very well" by U.S. Soccer as they explored their options. His run to the semifinals with Canada just weeks after taking that job will sting for many in U.S. Soccer circles because he accomplished the improbable task of punching above the team's weight in record time.

Marsch is perhaps not the only candidate that may have been a good fit, but he was arguably the only person who felt both realistic and exciting. The drab reality is that U.S. Soccer is unlikely to do much better than him, either. Many have spent the last week name-dropping Jurgen Klopp as if they can manifest his arrival, but it feels unlikely even if U.S. Soccer can come up with the funds to make it happen.

It is worth remembering that a high-profile coach will not be able to fix the problems that are bigger than Berhalter. That, though, is not to suggest that the USMNT cannot solve their issues in time for the 2026 World Cup, but the solution is unlikely to be a glamorous one, nor does it have to be. Finding a better tactician than Berhalter is paramount and so is someone who can address the feelings of comfort that have plagued the USMNT in recent years, something veteran defender Tim Ream admitted following the team's Copa America exit. "It's a fantastic group, as everybody knows," he said, per Univision, "It's very, very close but sometimes, the intensity falls through the cracks."

It will require U.S. Soccer to do something it has not done in a little while, though -- make a choice that raises few questions, and quickly. U.S. Soccer took a year-plus to hire Berhalter, a process that will always have an asterisk next to it because his brother Jay was the federation's chief commercial officer at the time. It also took the federation six months to reinstate Berhalter, delayed by the changing sporting directors and an investigation into a decades-old domestic violence incident that came up in Berhalter's family feud with ex-national team players Claudio and Danielle Reyna.

With less than two years left on the clock before the U.S. welcomes the world's best teams for the World Cup, the onus is on the federation to live up to the expectations they set for themselves -- and do away with the sour taste of disappointment from the last two years. 

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